Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Language and Power II: The Secret Tongue of the Shah Kings

In Nepali I have encountered three forms of address that are used in everyday life: high, middle, low. Each has its own word for "you" and "he/she" and its own conjugation. I use the high form with teachers and the middle form with students and friends. As far as I can make out, the low form can be derogatory and insulting or it can be used for your closest friend or spouse. I have heard teachers at other schools tell me that they use the low form when addressing their students, but at my school I have only noticed the form used when the teachers were yelling at two boys to stop fighting.

This is how you say "sit down" in each:

High:            basnus!
Middle:         basa!
Low:            bas!

But if I ever met the former King of Nepal, he would expect for me to say "sit down" this way:


There is a separate form that is used for the Royal Family and the elite in Kathmandu Valley. But the differences go beyond verb conjugation. For example:

English               Normal Nepali               Royal Nepali

Come here!          aaunus!                         sawaari hoibaksyus!
to eat                    khaanu                          jyunar garibasknu
hand                     haat                              bahuli
shoes                    jutta                              paupos
to say                   bhaanu                         marji hunu

These examples come from a course on second year spoken Nepali that was part of the materials that my Nepali teachers used back when they taught Nepali to Peace Corps Volunteers (before the abolition of the monarchy). My host family, who are Kathmandu Valley resident Chhettries, understood every example and taught me other phrases that I could use in the Royal Nepali court. They told me that it is also the language of certain Indian elites, but in Nepal only people in Kathmandu Valley know it.

This is from Unleashing Nepal by Sujeev Shakya, referring to the Panchayat regime:

"All businesses ran on nepotism and required the special blessing of the royal family in order to effectively start up and function. This was typified in the use of language in particular. The king and royal family members were addressed in a grammatical form that could not be used for common citizens. It contained a lot of Urdu usage and an exclusive vocabulary to describe food, eating, sleeping, and other daily activities. As knowledge of this language was a major advantage in gaining proximity to the power centres around the palace, it functioned as a means of excluding people who were unfamiliar with it."

Indeed, most of the other examples given in the materials relate to seeking favors from the king: nigaaha baksnu (to grace kindly), huknu (to make a Royal proclamation), Tarkyaaunu, (to offer to the king), paaumaa winti chaDaaunu (to make a request to a member of the Royal family), darin baksnu (to pay a visit).

This is a very concrete example of how the knowledge of a language can be very powerful in Nepali society. Because Nepali is the native language of a minority of the Nepali citizens, knowledge of Nepali itself acts in a similar way today, as does the English language.

I asked people in the Valley whether they would still speak this language to the ex-King if they met him today. They said that they still would, as a sign of their continuing respect for the Royal family.


  1. that's crazy!
    korean has a similar situation where the conjugations, nouns and verbs used to address elders are different. There is yet another form that was used exclusively with royalty and nobility that today appears, oddly enough, in religious contexts (prayers, the bible, etc.)

  2. Wow, that's really interesting. I'm up-to-date on your blog! Sorry if you are now reading a bunch of posts from me in a row.

    Does our society have similar systems of elitist exclusion? I would say, yes. I wonder if you could find some behavior of ours that produces the same curious response in your Nepali family and friends, that I'm having now.

    When you brought up the subject, it didn't sound like they thought it was strange. What about when we say "Mr. President," for example? Does your Nepali family think this is strange?